Luxury is a state of mind

It’s been a long time since I last wrote. I can blame travel, work, and illness for a great deal of it, but there’s also the problem of trying to think of new things to send home every week. Nonetheless, I will endeavor to bring more fascinating facts from my dull and mundane life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

This term has been consumed with lots of traveling, lots of illness, and lots of struggle. The travel portion has been well-documented in previous posts. The illness I’ve been dealing with last week and the week before was most likely giardia, a lovely intestinal parasite that loves to travel around with small children. It brings lots of sulfur-scented gas, bloating, and trips to the latrine. Before the midterm break, I had a small bout with the flu.

Struggle has been with things like bike maintenance, exercise, writing lesson plans, getting enough time to do the things I need to do and the things I want to do, getting funding for more computer parts, and so on. It seems as though things are getting easier as the end of the term approaches, but my internal skeptic says “yeah. right.” We’ll see. I’m definitely due for a vacation away from site and some luxurious self-indulgence.

Speaking of luxury…

One of the interesting things that happens to you when you move to a developing country is that your concept of luxury changes. For example, when I was living in the U.S. I would have never considered Heinz Ketchup to be a luxury item. The same is true for cheese, wine, olives, mayonnaise, green peppers, carrots, lettuce, apples, canned tuna, fruit juice of any kind, automatic washers and dryers, air conditioning, running water, riding in a private car, having your own house, using your own internet connection, or even owning your own computer. Even books are a bit of a luxury here; it’s common for Peace Corps Volunteers to leave a sub-office with a bag full of books simply because they can’t get them anywhere else. For the last 9 months, I’ve not driven anywhere on my own, nor have I used a washer, dryer, dishwasher, or vacuum cleaner; I would probably spend at least a good 10 minutes just staring, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, at any kind of appliance more complicated than a toaster, after which I would finally remark “WHERE DID YOU GET THIS?”

On the other hand, there are things that I would have considered a luxury in the U.S. that are very commonplace here. For example: having students cook, clean, do laundry, or work on your garden/farm is so commonplace that it’s almost weird not to do it. The same is true of tropical fruit: I regularly buy fresh pineapple, papaya, avocado, bananas, and oranges for less money than I’d spend on a cup of coffee in the U.S. Mangoes are so plentiful that people don’t even bother to pick them off the trees after a certain point in the season, and I can get freshly made organic peanut butter for about 50 cents a cup. A great deal of my wardrobe is tailor-made, and I can easily have any other clothes I buy altered to fit better for a small fee. I’ve had two custom patio chairs, a kitchen table, and two end-tables/nightstands made for my house, none of which cost more than $20.

I guess what I’m trying to say is two-fold. My first point is that the concept of luxury is relative, and that anything that provides comfort in relative scarcity will fit the bill. My second point is that it’s really surprising how much you can do without when you put your mind to it.

Alright, time to prepare myself for the dreaded end-of-term exams. This week and next are full of papers, watches, and red pens; after the 3rd, I hope to escape to Kumasi for a few days. Take it easy…

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